Splitting Household Chores Fairly is an Impossible Waste of Time (Just Ask the Amish)

I want us to do the same amount of work. I also don't want to spend all day talking about it. Clearly I'm not getting what I want.

A couple times a year, my husband, son, and I go to stay with some Amish friends (it’s a long story). Some years ago, on our very first overnight in Amish Country, I stood around with the frozen smile of a first-day intern as the women and girls gathered in the kitchen sliced up ham, mashed potatoes, and shook a bag of shredded cheese (Amish people go heavy on cheese) onto a salad. In the next room, the men and boys tipped back on pleather reclining sofas, and discussed an upcoming trip to a business expo. After supper, the same arrangement: men chatting and the women in the kitchen until cleanup was done.

I had to wrestle down a certain chagrin I felt watching my husband sit with the men while I worked to make and clean up supper (a lot of supper; our closest Amish friends have 13 kids).

My struggle in the early days of our Amish visits was less about my passing judgment on the Amish than passing judgment on my husband, who could barely contain his finger-flapping glee at receiving a culture-specific housework pass. “I mean, it would just be weird if I offered to do dishes…,” he’d say as we drove past corn fields and farm stands on the way home from a trip that, for me, involved wordlessly pitching in with the domestic business: setting the table, wiping down counters, helping to dry the skyscraper of dishes.

The Amish have collectively and individually chosen this very particular life, which involves horses, suspenders, pie after breakfast, and men not washing dishes. I’ve found that many Amish women are strong partners in family decision-making and that many have an enviable work-life balance — a majority of the community rules they live by (e.g. minimal technology) ensure families spend time together.

But my husband and I are not Amish. We are, in theory, equal partners in all realms of our relationship. I wondered if I was losing something of myself on those trips. If I was being diminished by play-acting the role of traditional housewife. And every so often, I’d look over the suds at my husband kicking it on the sofa with the men and think, “This is so wrong.”

Then, after a few more visits, something very strange happened. As I dried dishes and swapped stories with my increasingly close friends about who eats odder foods (they have smearcase, we have lox), it hit me that I was starting to enjoy how simple life felt when the roles between my husband and I were so sharply delineated. Let’s be clear: I have no interest in giving up the hard-won sharing of the domestic workload in our home. If I make the dinner, he does the dishes, full stop. But I really grew to love the vacation from all the negotiations and diplomacy and draggy deja vu disputes that go along with having to figure out who does what and when.

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My husband and I argue about household chores more than anything. Okay, no shock there. Being a good partner means being a good roommate and, as I learned the first week of college, being a good roommate is hard. But there’s something else going on. While he and I have some consistently delegated jobs, unexpected tasks inevitably precipitate Rashomonic recollections of who did what last time. Oftentimes, the quest for fairness is a  bigger drag than the chores themselves.

For women, the idea of fairness is further complicated by the false promise that⎯within our enlightened 21st century relationships⎯the domestic workload should be equal. Friends, I am here to tell you that the idea that pretty much any father does as much house-worky, child-reary stuff as his spouse is just bullshit. The Earth is not flat. It’s the climate that is killing the puffins. And women do the majority of work in the home.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, men in the United States spend 150.2 minutes a day doing unpaid labor; women spend 243.2 minutes doing it. So women do about an hour and a half more per day than their partners.

But here’s what makes that statistic extra maddening. Based on a Pew study, men are more likely than women to say that they share household chores and responsibilities about equally with their partners. In other words, women do more in the home while their husbands chill on the couch, thinking, “Oh, man, I work my ass off around here.” This is exactly the kind of thing that brings out maximum crank in a lady.

This game is definitely afoot in our home, especially, for some reason, right before dinner.

“Dude!” I started saying when my husband would wordlessly plop down in a dining room chair. This got us to the point where he automatically asked me what he could do to help. It was better than the plop, but he was still positioning himself as a kind of super extra helpful house guest rather than my teammate in the sport of family dinner.

“Can I do anything?” makes help a negotiation rather than a gesture of partnership. We are not Amish. Get off your ass and fill some water glasses.

My husband and I actually like each other a lot. We hold hands watching Game of Thrones. At least once a week, we group hug our kid and declare ourselves a lucky family. I am grateful for the money he brings in⎯way more than me⎯and I am okay with shouldering extra domestic burden because I work fewer hours.

But I still want to get paid for the differential, even if it’s just in the currency of awareness. I want to hear: “You do more of the grunt work and the grunt work sucks.” It’s amazing how much goodwill you can bank with a sentiment like that. Acknowledging the unpaid labor gap doesn’t solve it, but it can diminish some of the resentment that comes with it.

Now, when we visit our Amish friends, I know exactly what I’m signing up for. I start folding a pile of line-dried socks without being asked, I know where the silverware and plates are, I can even do a decent job of twisting pretzel dough. I’ve made lifelong bonds with my Amish female friends, in part fueled by our shared labor (I’ve also spent plenty of time with the guys in full-family games of volleyball and post-dishes talks on the porch).

At home, I’m not sure my husband and I will ever figure out an exact formula for fairness when it comes to chores. The variables make consistency impossible. So we’re aiming lower, for unexpected gestures of domestic goodwill. A table set, a boy ready for school, coffee restocked: On our better days, we help each other as casually and wordlessly as my friend Naomi lays out the shoofly pie.